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The X-Files – Christmas Carol (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Part of the challenge of the fourth and fifth seasons is watching The X-Files adapt the speed of its mythology.

The mythology has a very clear momentum in the first three seasons. For all that Chris Carter and his writers loved teasing out new questions, there was a clear sense of momentum and movement. The show had gone from a series about an isolated alien abduction in The Pilot to a series with a date set for the alien colonisation of Earth in Talitha Cumi. For all that the series was accused of being ambiguous and mysterious, there was a sense that it was at least going somewhere.

And so this is Christmas...

And so this is Christmas…

Things changed during the fourth season, most likely as the prospect of The X-Files: Fight the Future loomed in the future. It was clear that Fox would not allow Carter to set an end date on the television show before transitioning to feature films, and that the series would have to stretch beyond Carter’s original roadmap for it. All of a sudden, the mythology started stalling. The fourth season’s mythology had no clear direction in which to go, as evidenced by the fact that the decision to give Scully cancer in Leonard Betts was an eleventh hour decision with no long-term planning.

The fifth season’s mythology comes with its own particular set of problems. The movie had been written during the fourth season and filmed during the gap between the fourth and fifth seasons. This is quite evident in the way that the movie carries over abandoned elements of the fourth season mythology like the bees, who do not register at all in the fifth season. However, this also meant that the end point of the fifth season was essentially set in stone for the production team. The End would have to lead into Fight the Future, no matter what happened in the intervening nineteen episodes.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

This means a lot of things for the fifth season. It means that the fifth season is stuck with the “Mulder as a skeptic… sort of” setup until Fight the Future, even if the show generally ignores it as much as it can. It also means that the mythology episodes probably should not contain any earth-shattering revelations or introduce any major character who were not already written into the film. Although Patient X and The Red and the Black effectively throw out these constraints almost completely, Christmas Carol and Emily try to adhere to them.

The result is a mythology episode that adheres rather closely to the successful approach adopted by Tempus Fugit and Max, a story that takes the backdrop of what the show has already revealed about the conspiracy and then uses that as a setting in which it can tell a decidedly more intimate and personal story.

It's a Scully family Christmas...

It’s a Scully family Christmas…

The fifth season of The X-Files has a very strange feeling to it. It is a lot calmer than the chaotic fourth season. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are no longer dividing their attention between running The X-Files, overseeing Millennium and writing Fight the Future. There is a lot less turbulence in the season, and a lot fewer jarring transitions. There are great episodes and terrible episodes, but the shift in quality on a week-to-week basis is nowhere near as dramatic as it was during the fourth season.

The fifth season has no run of episodes as all-over-the-map as Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, Tunguska, Terma, Paper Hearts, El Mundo Gira and Leonard Betts. Instead, there are generally peaks and troughs – Christmas Carol brings us to the end of a peak, and Emily sends us barreling into a trough. However, there is also a much more mellow and reflective attitude to be found in the fifth season as a whole. The fourth season was a very morbid and bleak season of television, but the fifth is a bit quieter and more introspective.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

In many ways, the fifth season could be seen as the calm both before and after the storm. Fight the Future had been written and filmed. However, it had yet to be released. In a way, this makes the entire fifth season seem like something of a pregnant pause, a moment of hesitation. This is a story where the ending is already written, and all the show needs to do is avoid messing up the landing. As much as this traps the show by forcing it to follow a certain path, it also affords the creative team a bit more freedom to do things that they would not normally attempt.

So the fifth season has more than its fair share of “off-format” episodes, like Unusual Suspects or The Post-Modern Prometheus or Bad Blood or Travelers. Some of these episodes were prompted by production realities, others were simply written to allow the creative team a bit of fun. Similarly, Chris Carter was able to draft in outside writers like Stephen King or William Gibson to write for the show – a decision which sounds like fun, but undoubtedly involves lots of re-writing and editing and scheduling that might not have been practical on a more hectic season.

Night terrors...

Night terrors…

Of course, this raises the question of how you write a mythology episode against that backdrop. As Chris Carter conceded when discussing the season in retrospect, the primary goal when doing the big mythology episodes was not to create a discontinuity with Fight the Futuresomething which was very much at odds with the writing staff’s more laissez-faire approach to long-term plotting:

“That was the hard part, because we never plan too far ahead, by design. We want to feel our way through the dark a little bit, with a general idea of where we’re headed,” explains Carter. “Season Five was the first season that we actually knew what we needed to accomplish. So we knew there were certain marks we needed to hit, certain characters we needed to bring in and out, belief systems that needed to be played with. It actually provided us with a much more rigid set of demands in the story telling than we’ve ever been set with.”

Christmas Carol and Emily compensate by writing a mythology episode that stands quite apart from the mythology. The Cigarette-Smoking Man does not appear. The black oil is not mentioned. Although the audience does get to see some green blood, it is not until Emily. The mythology-focused viewer could skip Christmas Carol and Emily and have no difficulty following anything that happens later on the series.

Run, rabbit, run, rabbit...

Run, rabbit, run, rabbit…

Christmas Carol is itself something of an off-format episode. It was actually filmed before The Post-Modern Prometheus, because it had been written around the absence of actor David Duchovny. Duchovny was promoting the movie Playing God, which had been filmed in 1995, but was not realised until 1997 – presumably to capitalise on Duchovny’s higher profile. Playing God did not set the box office alight, prompting Duchovny to reflect, “It didn’t work in the end but, you know, most movies suck. They’re hard to do.”

As a result, Christmas Carol is a mythology episode that is carried exclusively by Scully. Mulder appears in a single scene of Christmas Carol, arriving home to his apartment after jogging. He picks up the phone to answer a phone call from Scully… and she hangs up on him. This is a case that Scully has to tackle alone. This is Scully going off in her own direction, in her own search for the truth. This is a bit of oddity in terms of The X-Files at this point in its life. Most mythology episodes involve Mulder dynamically leading the charge, as Scully follows, waits and/or watches his back.

"And I'm done for the week!"

“And I’m done for the week!”

Scully is a very different character than Mulder, so it makes sense that Christmas Carol feels like a rather unconventional mythology episode. Scully is not going to jump off a bridge on to a moving train like Mulder did in Nisei. Scully is not going to abscond to Russia with a murderous traitor like Mulder did in Tunguska. Scully is generally more introspective and considered than Mulder, less likely to run off half-cocked and tilting at windmills. As a result, Christmas Carol is a rather quiet and sombre affair, with Scully reflecting on what her involvement with Mulder has cost her.

The result – as the title implies – is to offer a very loose adaptation of A Christmas Carol within the confines of the show’s mythology. Charles Dickens’ Christmas fable has become a literary classic, one that is constantly homaged and referenced across all sorts of media. It is a staple “Christmas episode” for any given television show, even if the basic idea is not exclusive to the yuletide season. After all, one could argue that The Curse of Frank Black borrows a few elements from A Christmas Carol, just setting the story at Halloween instead of Christmas.

A blood bath...

A blood bath…

According to John Shiban in Resist or Serve, the three writers were as influenced by one particular adaptation of A Christmas Carol, rather than the classic story itself:

“We’d been talking about doing a Christmas show together,” says Shiban, “and one day we were kicking around ideas and we realized we’d all seen – and loved – the 1951 British movie version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that starred Alastair Sim. We all thought: ‘This is a classic story of self – examination and rebirth, etc.’ And we decided to put Scully into a situation like that, somehow.”

That influence is most obvious in the name of the family featured in Christmas Carol. Emily’s surname is “Sim”, an obvious allusion to actor Alastair Sim. So Christmas Carol finds Scully reflecting on her current situation.

Scully's calling...

Scully’s calling…

One of the more interesting aspects of the mythology of The X-Files is the sense that the longer the characters stay involved in this world, the more it threatens to consume and swallow them. Ever since they became involved with Mulder, it seems that Scully and Skinner have seen the paranormal intrude into their personal lives. In Avatar, Skinner claimed that he had been haunted by a succubus for most of his adult life – but the problem only seemed to reach critical mass once he started managing a guy whose brief included succubi.

Similarly, Scully has seen her involvement with Mulder cost her any real chance of a normal and wholesome life. Never Again suggested that Scully had herself become a magnet for the sort of weirdness that one associates with The X-Files. Memento Mori revealed that Scully would be unable to have children as a direct result of her professional choices, a rather literal expression of the difficulties facing many women in those types of careers. It seems that Mulder and the X-files almost have a toxic and corrupting touch, contaminating those they come into contact with.

Light relief...

Light relief…

Of course, there is also an argument to be made that this is less of a conscious theme and more of an example of convenient plotting. When the writing staff have to generate twenty-odd episodes in a given year, it seems inevitable that “something X-files-y happens… but to somebody we know and care about” seems like a good choice. The audience is more invested in a story where Skinner is haunted by a succubus than a story where some guy we’ve never met before is haunted by a succubus. Even if it feels contrived, it has a very clear appeal to it.

So Christmas Carol is full of contrived coincidences that are required to get Dana Scully involved in the case, because Scully is not quite as gung-ho and proactive as Mulder. (It helps that Scully actually has somebody to share Christmas with apart from her partner.) This leads to at least one glaring question that the episode completely avoids answering – what is the deal with the phone calls from Melissa that jump start the whole thing? – and a whole host of less inconsistencies and contrivances that feel a little clumsy.

Scully is kidding herself...

Scully is kidding herself…

It seems a bit lucky that Bill Scully should just so happen to live close enough to the Sim family that the story can take place, and that the staged suicide of Roberta Sim should happen just as Margaret and Dana Scully arrive to spend the holidays on the base. It also seems like trying to adopt a child should probably be slower  and more involved than what we see here, particularly around Christmas. The conspiracy may be plotting against mankind, but at least they seem to have whipped social services into a lean and efficient machine.

Then again, it is not as if these are the biggest contrivances ever to appear in an episode of The X-Files. After all, the mythology hinges on the idea that the conspirators have never thought to fake Mulder’s suicide (or death by auto-erotic asphyxiation) or even to just frame him for (rather than going to incredible lengths to set him up to commit) some horrific crime. There is a certain suspension of disbelief required when watching The X-Files, a tolerance for contrivances and allowances.

Needling the investigation...

Needling the investigation…

A lot of these problems can be explained away by the production realities behind the scenes. According to Frank Spotnitz, Christmas Carol was completely re-written at the last minute, with the trio of writers more interested in thematic cohesion than plotting or structuring:

This is a story in which John, Vince and I worked on the original conception of the story and it had nothing to do with Melissa Scully and we dumped the story and we were very short on time and we threw it out and began again with Melissa Scully as the cornerstone of the story. When we began again, we also took the Dickens story, A Christmas Carol, as our lead. So suddenly the story came together very fast and actually was one of the most satisfying to write for the three of us.

The use of the manger at the very beginning of Christmas Carol was deliberate. The idea of a “virgin birth” was conscious. I think the one image in that two parter that people really felt was heavy handed or was laying onto Scully as Virgin Mary idea was at the end of Emily there is a very slow dissolve to the stained glass and that was an image that the director chose to use because it was there on the set that day and all of us liked it. But I don’t think that we meant to suggest that she was anyway equivalent to the Virgin Mary and simply thought that, you know, it was a Christmas story and those parallels deepened the story we were telling.

As a result, Christmas Carol works better as a mood piece than as a story. The plotting may be a little loose and the symbolism a little heavy-handed, but it represents a nice change of pace from the traditional blockbuster trappings of these two-parters.

Do I detect some sarcasm?

Do I detect some sarcasm?

Christmas Carol is an episode that belongs to Scully alone, and one that provides a vehicle for exploring the character – in ways both good and bad. In particular, issues of gender come to the fore in Christmas Carol, inviting viewers to explore the feminist undercurrents that have explicitly been part of the mythology since the third season. After all, Scully is a woman whose bodily autonomy was violated as part of systemic abuse by a cabal of powerful men. That violation explicitly involved control of her reproductive organs, adding a rather heavy political subtext to the episode.

Christmas Carol is rather candid about this. It is essentially a story about how Scully has had to choose between her career and her desire to start a family. The show never really attempts a similar story with Mulder. When Mulder is confronted with an alternative happy life in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, it is the context of giving up his zealous quest rather than his professional choices. After all, Skinner can at least try to be a family man, even if it ultimately doesn’t work out.

Re-writing the show's DNA...

Re-writing the show’s DNA…

Attention is drawn to the gender dynamics of the Scully household – with Bill joking that even putting the angel atop the tree is “man’s work.” Nevertheless, it seems that Bill Scully is now the de facto head of the Scully family. Margaret and Dana Scully come to visit Bill Scully’s house at Christmas. Although Margaret is clearly concerned for her daughter, it is Bill who tries to pressure Dana into spending more time with the family. It is Bill who pulls her away during the party to check everything is okay. It is Bill who silently stands up to Mulder in Emily.

Over the course of the episode, Roberta Sim is painted as a female victim of male violence and indifference. Scully initially suspects that Roberta was murdered by her husband, Marshall. Statistically, the evidence would support it – women are at more risk from their male partners than anybody less. This is to say nothing of how Scully’s suspicions are reinforced when she arrives at the Sims house to discover a bunch of men in suits standing around looking sinister in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Emily is alone in her room.

Mama Scully...

Mama Scully…

Christmas Carol is absolutely populated with male authority figures. Scully’s growing concerns (and legitimate questions) about the case are dismissed and belittled by local male authority figures. Detective Kresge eventually apologises to her, but he is initially quite confrontational. The local pathologist seems quite keen to rule out any hint of foul play, even after the discover of puncture wounds on the body. The clinical trials involving Emily are overseen by Doctor Ernest Calderon.

Indeed, Calderon is very clearly interested in exploiting Emily Sim for his own research. He admits as much to Scully, although the reality is slightly more complicated. It is made clear that Roberta Sim was increasingly uncomfortable with the way that her daughter was being treated, so Ernest Calderon conspired with Marshall Sim to keep Emily involved in the programme. Marshall and Roberta Sim were paid substantial sums of money for access to their daughter; Calderon very clearly and very casually commodified Emily Sim.

John Gillnitz cameo!

John Gillnitz cameo!

Of course, a lot of these interesting dynamics are undercut the moment that Mulder shows up in Emily, at which point Mulder becomes the dynamic driving force of the narrative while Scully stands around looking very sad. Still, Christmas Carol is quite interesting in the way that it frames its central story as a heavily feminist narrative about how casually women are victimised and objectified in contemporary society. These ideas have been peculating since Scully’s abduction, and Christmas Carol very cleverly takes advantage of Mulder’s absence to foreground them.

That said, there are still problematic aspects to Christmas Carol. Most obviously, Christmas Carol really embraces the uncomfortable arc of motherhood that has been slowly building momentum across the fourth and fifth seasons. Scully was initially presented as a young professional woman with no more interest in starting a family than Mulder had. In Jersey Devil, she concedes that she has no real skill with children. However, following her abduction, the show has been quite consciously looking at Scully through a maternal lens.

A bit of a wash...

A bit of a wash…

She was a surrogate caregiver for Kevin in Revelations, towards the end of the third season. In the fourth season, Scully was repeatedly confronted with perversions of motherhood – both in standalone monster-of-the-week stories like Home and Leonard Betts, and also in mythology episodes like Memento Mori. The fourth season explicitly confirmed that Scully could not have children, a horrific example of just what her experiences had cost her. However, the fifth season builds on these ideas and places them front-and-centre of Scully’s arc.

It doesn’t help that two of the show’s more recent comedy episodes – Small Potatoes and The Post-Modern Prometheus – tended to play down the horror of rape, suggesting that such things were not as horrific as they might have been if women who wanted to have babies got to have babies as a result. Christmas Carol and Emily build upon this idea, as Scully is confronted with a child created as a result of the horrific experiments committed upon her. Rather than providing a reminder of that violation and trauma, Scully immediately starts planning to adopt Emily.

Scully family portraits...

Scully family portraits…

To be fair, there is a pro-choice feminist allegory that could be read into the climax of Emily, where Scully decides that a child conceived without love (as a result of unspeakable trauma) would be better off never existing. Still, it is fairly muddled – even by the standards of science-fiction abortion allegory. This feminist reading is heavily undercut by the fact that Emily is not a fetus when Scully makes the decision to terminate, but a child. Instead, Christmas Carol and Emily both emphasise the idea that Scully always wanted to be a mother, even when she didn’t think that she did.

“You know what?” asks Tara, the wife of Bill Scully. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this. As big and fat as I am right now, I can’t wait to have more. This is our baby, our son. It kind of gives everything new meaning. I can’t help but think that life before now was somehow… less. Just a prelude.” It feels like a reinforcement of the stereotype that women exist primarily as mothers rather than as individuals in their own right, like an attempt to set up a conflict with Scully, the professional woman who has never shown a real interest in starting her own traditional nuclear family.

Creepy kid is creepy...

Creepy kid is creepy…

Instead, Scully seems to agree with Tara. “I just never realized how much I wanted it until I couldn’t have it,” Scully confesses to her mother. It is a really awkward scene that consciously recontextualises Scully’s earlier professional and career choices as mistakes rather than conscious decisions. Christmas Carol seems to suggest that professional career women who had never expressed any serious interest in becoming mothers were simply misguided and mistaken. Christmas Carol makes it seem like this whole trauma exists to teach Scully about what is really important for a woman.

It does not help matters that the final flashback conversation between Dana and Melissa Scully seems to suggest that Dana’s career choices might ultimately be justified not because her decisions have intrinsic worth, but because they bring her into contact with Mulder. “Well, just don’t mistake the path for what is really important in life,” Melissa advises her sister. “The people you’re going to meet along the way. You don’t know who you’re going to meet when you join the FBI. You don’t know how your life is going to change or how you’re going to change the life of others.”

Girl talk.

Girl talk.

There is a very clear sense – with the shipper-heavy emphasis of the fifth season as a whole – that Melissa is rather clunkily foreshadowing the union of Mulder and Scully as something that is fundamentally important of itself. Melissa’s dialogue does not suggest that Scully’s choices should be measured by her own goals and objectives – like Mulder measures his own quest against the pursuit of Samantha or the exposure of the conspiracy, both objectives important to him. Instead, Scully’s choices are important because of who they bring her into contact with.

These potentially problematic undercurrents in Christmas Carol reach critical mass in Emily. However, Christmas Carol is still constructed in such a way as to be interesting on its own terms. It is a quiet and introspective mythology episode, one utterly unlike any mythology episode to this point in the series.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fifth season of The X-Files:

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